From the Avro disappointment to the gift of stem-cell research

Scrapping the nascent all-Canadian Avro Arrow jet fighter program in 1959 is still mourned as a national blunder but, 53 years later, the law of unintended consequences is drawing from it unexpected bounty.

Owen Boris, as a young engineer, was a technically savvy worker who lost his job when the Avro program ended; he returned to Hamilton where he started installing television antennae for neighbours. From there he built a modern high-speed Internet, telephone and cable company that he sold in 2009 for an estimated $300 million.

The businessman did not forget his disappointment with the demise of Avro and never again wanted Canadian innovation to be squandered.

Mr. Boris died suddenly in April at the age of 79 but, on Monday, at a ceremony in Hamilton, his family is announcing a $30-million donation in his name to McMaster University to spur medical research and innovation, primarily in human stem-cell therapies.

“Owen Boris was very frustrated with a couple of things,” said Dr. John Kelton, vice-president of McMaster’s faculty of health sciences and dean of its Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

“He had been involved with the Avro Arrow and many times he said how frustrated he was that Canada was on the edge of having one of the finest aviation machines and it was squandered. He saw it as a failed opportunity for Canada. That bothered him.”

Mr. Boris was also frustrated by Canada’s often cumbersome health-care system. “He went to the Mayo Clinic and wondered why we can’t have something like a Mayo Clinic in Canada,” Dr. Kelton said.

The donation aims to posthumously address both of those frustrations.

Of the donation, $24-million will establish the Boris Family Centre in Human Stem Cell Therapies, designed to speed the commercial development of discoveries, and $6-million will create a special hospital clinic where patients with complex health problems can see several specialists and have related tests during one visit.

“Owen compared stems cells to the Avro Arrow program — he asked why, with all the basic research that’s happening here at McMaster, can we not get it into patients more quickly? If children are dying of leukemia and stem cells might save them, why aren’t we doing it yet?” said Dr. Kelton of his discussions with Mr. Boris shortly before his death.

“And he asked why is it so hard to get health care in Canada that is fast and efficient?”

McMaster University

Owen Boris liked speed in jets, boats and medicine.

Mr. Boris was all about fast and efficient. It was what sparked his love of the Arrow, pushed him to set speed-boat racing records and to build and fly his own plane. It was also a mantra for his business.

Dissatisfied with both the quality and quantity of television reception in the 1950s, he built a television tower in the backyard of his Hamilton home to pull in a better signal and additional channels from Toronto, Buffalo and Cleveland.

When neighbours asked him about it, he dug trenches to bury cables from his tower to their homes to share the signal.

It wasn’t long before providing cable television became his main focus and, under the name Mountain Cable and with the help of his wife, Marta, business roared. Renamed Mountain Cablevision it became one of the largest and most technically advanced independent cable TV providers in Canada.

McMaster University hopes to match Mr. Boris’ passion for speed and success in the medical field through the cash infusion.

“My dad had been to the Mayo Clinic a couple of times and raved about it,” said Les Boris, Mr. Boris’s son. “We’re looking to see that type of model and infrastructure created here, so that people can have access to the best doctors, efficient diagnosis and immediate treatment.”

“Without any wait times,” added his sister, Jackie Work.

In response, the university visited the Mayo Clinic to look for ways to apply its philosophy to Canada’s universal health-care system.

The bulk of the Boris money, however, will boost efforts at the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, with an eye on moving research out of the lab and into the hospital.

“The Boris family want us to fast track the basic research to get it into patients. They are a family intent on moving things forward and here is a chance to operationalize that,” Dr. Kelton said.

The money will allow the school to recruit top researchers to the six-year-old institute that has already had several breakthroughs, including the ability to turn human skin into blood.

The Boris funds will establish two senior research chairs, one in blood stem cells and the other in neuro stem cells, with $5-million in funding each, the largest at the university.

“That is so large it will let us bring in the top dogs,” Dr. Kelton said. “It gives us a hunting licence to go out and get them and fund the lab and their research.”

The money will also fund several fellowships, technician positions and infrastructure building.

The Boris family has already given away millions.

Last year, the family donated $11-million to Hamilton’s St. Joseph’s Healthcare: $6-million to fund alcohol addiction research in memory of Mr. Boris’s son, Peter, who suffered from alcohol addiction before his death at age 44, and $5-million to buy an advanced robotic surgical system.

Before his death, Mr. Boris gave $3-million to fund a stem-cell vision research position at the Toronto General and Western Hospital Foundation.

“This is a continuation of the gifts that our family has already started giving back to the Hamilton community,” said Ms. Work. Added Les Boris: “We want to give back to the people in this city who supported our business for years.”

National Post

From the Avro disappointment to the gift of stem-cell research

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